Another blond singer tries for a career reinvention
Five years ago, Kid Rock made the rounds as a white-trash rap-rocker, armed with ample record-scratching sound effects and staccato rhymes filled with braggadocio. On his new, self-titled album, Mr. Rock is joined not by Eminem and Jay-Z, but instead by the hip-hopless: David Allan Coe, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Hank Williams Jr., and ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons.
In case you missed the transformation, he even throws in cover versions of songs by Bob Seger and Bad Company for good measure. This isn't a crossover; it's a cross-pollination of jaw-dropping, if not hip-hopping, proportions.
While Detroit's hillbilly hedonist previously hinted at eclectic tastes - a 2001 duet with Sheryl Crow, "Picture," which became a hit on pop stations this year, recalled nothing so much as mournful, he-she Nashville pairings - his new record hammers it home. He may be a PTA outcast, but, as of now, he's nowhere near OutKast; it's more like Lynyrd Skynyrd meets Toby Keith.
The move, industry experts say, marks a combination of marketing savvy and stylistic gambit. In an era when popular culture recycles, and parodies, itself at accelerated rates, crafty chameleons stand the best chance of long-term survival.
That means change. Plenty of pop musicians have toyed with their musical styles, not to mention haircuts and fashion, over the years. Think Bob Dylan plugging in at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, at once enraging and thrilling his audience. Elvis, over an extended period, went from a gyrating, raw rocker to a sweating, sequined Vegas vamp.
And, more recently, Madonna provided the modern model for keeping audiences interested beyond an album or two. The Material Girl went from "boy toy" to cosmopolitan club-hopper, with excursions into electronica, Hollywood glamour, and London matronhood mixed in, as well.
"Personal reinvention is a hallmark of American society," says Michael Azerrad, author of "Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991." "And, if nothing else, popular music reflects the realities of our culture."
Mr. Azerrad and other observers point to the rapid-fire shifts in popular taste as the basis for the steady stream of adaptations embodied by Kid Rock's new role as Motown's first hillbilly rocker. In the iPod era, fans don't even have album-length attention spans, preferring to bounce across eras and artists in a whirlwind of instantly accessible singles and other favorites.
"It's not like it was for Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby," says Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University in New York. "They were pretty much the same character for their entire careers. Those days are long gone. You have to reinvent yourself."
The most prominent example of career makeovers are those of teen queens such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. In the space of just two years, both have moved away from earlier, PG-rated material to tackle more licentious fare. And let's not forget puckish popster Pink, who started as an R&B diva and then became a rocker dealing with childhood demons. Of late, she's taken on a punk-princess demeanor - all in the span of three years, and before her 25th birthday. It's enough to make Madonna seem like Britney's middle-aged Mom, left outside the club and forced to attempt, say, the obligatory celebrity children's book.
But it's not just the younger stars that metamorphose as a way to avoid being dropped by a record label. Cyndi Lauper, a contemporary of Madonna, once just wanted to have fun. Now, she wants to croon. On her new album, "At Last," she sings melodies by Edith Piaf, Burt Bacharach, Etta James, and Smokey Robinson. She's not the only aging rocker to dip into a popular songbook. The raspy-throated Rod Stewart now winks through standards and has cranked out a pair of strong-selling albums filled with tracks made for sipping lattes at Starbucks.
"I look at it on a case-by-case basis," says Duncan Browne, chief operating officer at Newbury Comics, a New England chain of music stores. "With Pink, I think the permutations are part of what's inside her. With Rod Stewart, for example, I think it's more cashing in."
For Kid Rock, whose real name is Bob Ritchie, the musical metamorphosis coincides with an image makeover blending mall-ready rebellion (tattoos and trucker caps) with a dollop of campy glitz (his on-again, off-again relationship with Pamela Anderson).
On the new album, he sings about being a single father, throws in a few profanities here and there to keep it real for the kids and, in the next instant, mines the power ballads of Journey when he invokes the cliché of road-weary troubadour: "I guess lovin' a music man really wasn't in your plans."
Even the keg-party Kid Rock bears little threat these days. The singer entertained troops last year in Qatar, Kuwait, and Iraq. Last month, VH1 aired a Kid Rock Christmas special.
"Five years ago, that would have sounded like a Saturday Night Live skit," Mr. Thompson says. "Now you say, OK, I can believe that."
Such moments, contrived or not, Rock conveys a canny sense of popular taste. Kid Rock's sense of pastiche, like that of Lenny Kravitz, works with surprising effectiveness.
Beyond a handful of performers - the Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and Elton John, among them - the brief shelf life of pop acts demands more and more reinventions to stay relevant.
"Everything is much faster in the cycle now," says Mr. Browne, the Newbury Comics executive. "People don't have nearly as long to make an impression."
Mr. Azerrad, a veteran music journalist, observes that not all changes are contrived. He points to examples such as Paul Simon and David Byrne, who both discovered world music later in their musical careers and integrated them into the pop world with spectacular results. The Beatles, too, evolved naturally.
In addition, some changes that flop can be beneficial. Neil Young explored rockabilly and techno. Neither worked, and he soon found himself back at what he does best, folk rock. Garth Brooks made a disastrous foray into mild alternative rock, then returned to the big-arena country he all but invented.
Thompson says the biggest motivator beyond retaining relevancy is avoiding mockery. David Letterman raised a generation of ironic pop-culture consumers, ready to embrace a band in one decade and reconvene a few years later to chuckle over how meaningless that act had become.
"It's re-packaged for mockery on cable specials," Thompson says. "As rock became domesticated, and as rap becomes domesticated, avoiding that mockery gets harder and harder. You have to reinvent everything all the time."